Thursday, March 16, 2017

Live Ideas: Trajal Harrell in the house of the spirits

Trajal Harrell performs his solo, The Return of La Argentina.
(photo: Maria Baranova)

In The Return of La Argentina, performer Trajal Harrell--best known for postmodernist vogueing--"walked" Participant, Inc., a Lower East Side gallery stripped of artworks and stuffed with audience members in post-snow drab. The long, white-walled venue had a downbeat, pedestrian air--too few chairs for the crowd, wood floor glistening with tracked-in slush, random doodads tucked around a row of three piano benches clearly reserved for Harrell and his props.

Or perhaps I should say, reserved for the shade Harrell would come to channel--Butoh artist Kazuo Ohno in turn channeling his idol, Antonia ("La Argentina") Mercé, the Argentine, early 20th Century star of Spanish dance. Somewhere in there, also, was Ohno's Butoh co-creator and director, Tatsumi Hijikata, who died of cancer in 1986. It was not only a crowded gallery but a rather crowded seance, too.

The engrossing solo was originally presented in 2015, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art. Last evening, Harrell performed it for Mx’d Messages, the current Live Ideas Festival, curated by Mx Justin Vivian Bond for New York Live Arts. V, trans-genre artist, designed the 2017 edition of the festival as a presciently timely exploration of "non-binary strategies to approach some of the most vexing and wide-ranging problems our planet is now facing."

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, Mr. Trump,
That wants it down.

What Bond intends to offer with this festival is a free flow of energy and ideas across literal and metaphoric boundaries that no longer do us much good. For Harrell, lately, one such boundary is the veil between worlds. He conceived of The Return of La Argentina as an archiving of Ohno's 1977 solo, Admiring La Argentina. While the audience looked on, he snacked on orange juice, potato chips and, finally, some magical concoction of Greek yogurt and jam to see what would happen next.

Would Ohno make himself present?

He did, Harrell told us later, the proof always being the mistakes that crop up--and a few things did go wrong last night. Which means, in Harrell's way of thinking, things went right.

"If there are mistakes, it means that Kazuo Ohno's spirit is in the room." He tells us this in the middle of performing, and the room suddenly got even more crowded with African, Afro-Atlantic and Native American ancestors who totally get what he's talking about.

Although Harrell takes up this performance hoping to slip behind it, The Return of La Argentina helped me see him better than anything I'd ever watched him do. In the beginning, sensing something about to happen, I turned my head and caught him quietly and shyly entering the space, initially out of view of most of us, barefoot and clutching the ruffled top of a floral Spanish dress against his breast, eventually attempting undulations and haughty attitude, that body otherwise dressed in rumpled black jeans (much like my own) and a blue t-shirt over a long-sleeved black shirt. This guy could not look less like the elegant, charismatic Mercé, and he knows we know it, and that's part of it.

I'm more in touch now with Harrell's transparency. I realize that I've frequently seen him change clothing in front of us, and that that process of costume changing always looks the same--kind of ragged, a little harried, down to earth, another sign of the pedestrian aesthetic of postmodernism, its take on "realness," unified in the Black body of this particular contemporary dance artist. (How "real" is any of this? And why do I always want to use quote marks and assign question marks to things when I'm thinking about and writing about Harrell and the things that interest him?) His straightforward, often unprepared or awkward way with props--like tapping the wrong passcode into a smartphone and having to ask someone for the correct one--is a madness method. Try and fail, and do it right in front of everybody. No cover-up. The body tremors I'd noticed in him years ago and wondered about appear to be constant and, here, add visible texture to the vulnerability of the spooks who pass through The Return of La Argentina.

The performance was followed by a conversation between Harrell, Bond and New York Live Arts director Bill T. Jones. It was useful to hear Harrell articulate his sense of his work here as an act of archiving in which our presence is essential.

"It's a keeper, a space, a record, a context, a conservation," he says. And it's a way of thinking about, overall, my experience of live dance. I am honored to be invited into this house of spirits.

The Return of La Argentina is closed, but Mx’d Messages continues through this Sunday, March 19. Get schedule, venue and ticket information here.

New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan
(map/directions)

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